Business Recycling

Can The Plastic Bag Charge Make an Environmental Difference?


Recently, news has been full of talk and public opinion polls on England’s 5p plastic bag charge, which begins on 5th October 2015, although some retailers started earlier than that – in fact, cheap supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl have always charged for their carrier bags. However, charges will now be mandatory for all retailers who employ 250 or more staff members. Smaller retailers are not obliged to join in, but many plan to.

The reason behind this plastic bag ‘tax’ is environmental, although sales will be taxable, and so the Government will be benefiting from every sale. Charities will also be benefiting though, as stores must donate the remaining profit, after tax and costs, to a charity of their choice.

The hope is that the bag charges will make shoppers think more about how they are carrying their shopping, and dramatically reduce their use of single-use plastic bags. Will this work, or will people just buy the bags instead, and carry on like normal?

Bag charges elsewhere in the UK

The number of plastic bags given out in supermarkets fell by 147 million in Scotland in 2014. The bag charges were only in place for the last 11 weeks of the year, however 129 million of the total drop was in the final quarter of the year, showing that the newly introduced levy was a huge success.

Welsh shoppers have been charged for carrier bags in large retail outlets since 2011, and there has been a 71% drop in the number of bags used since then. That figure speaks for itself, I think. Whatever the reasons – whether people simply do not wish to pay for a carrier bag, or whether they are actually starting to consider the environmental impact – the charge is working in it’s goal of reducing the number of single-use carriers being used.

Why is plastic a problem?

According to this article by EcoWatch, the amount of plastic thrown away each year could actually circle the earth four times. Also, 50% of the plastic humans use, is used just one time, and then thrown away. Take a moment to think about it – take a look around you, and see what is made from plastic. As I type this on my plastic keyboard, I can see the words on my plastic computer monitor. I can make notes with my plastic pen, in my plastic covered notepad. You get the idea. Our lives are plastic.

If left to ‘rot’, plastic would take between 500 and 1000 years to degrade. So that is simply not an option. Currently, 90% of the litter floating on the ocean’s surface is made of plastic; this leads to marine life being negatively affected, and there has been much discussion lately about birds and fish getting tangled up in or ingesting litter.  Plastics also contain chemicals which are bad for the environment, and leak into land and waterways.

The crux of the matter is: plastic is bad for the planet, and we need to cut down on its use.

What’s wrong with just recycling the plastic bags?

Recycling is obviously always a better option than sending waste to landfill – making a new plastic object from old plastic rather than creating new plastic is far more environmentally friendly. However, if recycling can be avoided too, then even better. Reuse is good, but better would be to not create a need for all these plastic bags to be made in the first place. Whilst single-use carriers are made from 70% less plastic than they were 20 years ago, they are still plastic, and they still use a lot of energy and also a non-renewable oil (polyethylene, or ‘PE’) when produced.

The sad fact is that the majority of these carrier bags don’t get recycled, but instead end up in landfill. This is due to factors such as lack of kerbside plastic bag collection, combined with laziness and/or apathy, and general lack of awareness.

Exemptions from the bag charges

There aren’t many exemptions – just health and safety related ones, such as if you buy razors/knives or unwrapped food (fresh fruit/veg, raw meat/fish). However, if the bag is also intended to contain other non-exempt items, then the charge will be payable. I imagine this will cause chaos in its early days at busy supermarket tills, but if this new law isn’t followed correctly, it won’t work.

So will the charge work as intended?

Judging by the success of the scheme when rolled out in Scotland and Wales, I’d predict that the charge will indeed make a big change to the number of plastic single-use bags being used by shoppers. This, in turn, should dramatically cut down on the number of bags being produced, being recycled, or ending up in landfill. So, next we need to figure out how to reduce or eliminate other plastic objects from our everyday lives.


Andy has worked as a freelance journalist for a number of years and has been published in some of the UK’s top newspapers. He is now the editor Commercial Waste Magazine and contributes to a large selection of headlines and blog articles on the site.

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